Of a Lesser-Known Gospel Story that is Pretty “Cool”

 

Recently I was talking to a group of young adult Catholics and mentioned a gospel passage that they said they had never heard. It is the Gospel of the Temple Tax and how Jesus told Peter to go catch a fish and, in its mouth will be a coin that will pay the Temple Tax for Jesus and Peter. In a certain sense it is one of the more charming gospel passages and kind of “cool.” It shows Jesus’ sovereignty over creation and the rather interesting twist of finding money in the mouth of a certain fish from a large large of likely millions of fish. In the Holy Land today, when you have a meal near the Sea of Galilee, many of the restaurants serve “Peter’s Fish” that is served with a coin in its mouth.

The bible study students before me, mostly in their early thirties, were perplexed that they had never heard of this Passage. It is from Matthew  17:22-27. It occurs to me that this story is not in the Sunday Cycle of readings and this is the likely explanation as to why it surprised them.  It does occur in the weekday cycle at Monday of the 19th Week  but that is in the heart of August when many are away.

At any rate, let’s take a look at this lesser known story and ponder it. 

First of all, it is likely a confusing passage to anyone who hears it proclaimed in the United States because the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), used for the lectionary in this country, makes what I would argue is an inaccurate translation of the Greek text. Here is the passage in question (the crucial section is presented in bold italics):

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?”  When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you” (Matthew 17:24-27).

The NABRE translation makes little sense; kings do in fact collect taxes from their “subjects.” Their subjects are not exempt from taxes, tolls, or censuses.

In contrast, the Greek text is clear and does make sense. It speaks not of subjects and foreigners, but of sons and strangers. The Greek text is straightforward:

  • … ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων?
  • … apo ton huion auton e apo ton allotrion?
  • … from their sons or from the strangers?

The Greek word huion means sons or descendants (by birth or possibly by adoption); it refers to people sharing the same nature as their father. The Greek text is referring to people who are of the family or household of a king.

These sons (or members of the king’s family) are distinguished from allotrion, those who belong to another’s family and are thus subjects of the king, or foreigners living in the land.

In light of this, I find the NABRE’s translation of huion as “subjects” to be odd. I consulted about two dozen other English translations of this passage and not one of them renders the word as “subjects.” They all translate it as either “sons” or “children.”

With the translation of “sons,” the meaning of the passage becomes clear. Jesus is pointing out to Peter that kings do not tax their own children and therefore He, as God’s Son, is exempt from the temple tax. However, to avoid giving scandal or stirring up controversy, Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax (and tells him how to obtain the money to do so).

The particular tax in question is the annual levy to pay for the upkeep of the temple. It amounted to two drachmas and was paid with the didrachma, a two-drachma silver coin. This represented about half a day’s wages for a typical laborer and was paid by all male Jews aged twenty and over, both at home and abroad. However, certain Jewish officials (especially the higher ranking priests), were exempt.

Secondly, it really is a charming Gospel! Jesus tells Peter to pull out the first fish he sees, and that in its mouth he will find the money necessary to pay the tax. What a wonderful story! It is a quiet miracle, one which affirms Peter’s faith in Jesus’ divinity and Sonship without confronting others who were not yet ready to hear or believe this. The Father does exempt Jesus from the tax, but He supplies the money to pay it anyway.  Hence the tax officials are spared a conflict because they are not yet ready to render an act of faith in Jesus’ divinity and status as the Son of God who is exempt from this tax.

Thus is merciful and He prepares us for belief. Having granted the gift of faith, He sends confirmations to strengthen our faith little by little. He draws us in gently and clearly.

Standing in Need of Prayer – A Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year

There’s an old saying that goes, “Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, there’s none in me.” One is snared in sin by the very act of claiming to have no sin! In fact, it’s the biggest sin of all: pride.

In the Sunday Gospel, the Lord illustrates this through the parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. One man commits the sin of pride and leaves unjustified. The other, though a great sinner, receives the gift of justification through his humility. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches us.

Prideful Premise Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. When it comes to parables, it’s easy to gloss over the introductory statement, which often tells us what prompted Jesus to tell the parable. Many people simply see this parable as being about arrogance, but there is more to it than that.

Jesus is addressing the parable to those who are convinced of their own righteousness. They are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. They think that they can have their own righteousness and that it will be enough to save them.

However, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. I do not care how many spiritual pushups you do, how many good works you perform, or how many commandments you keep; it will never be enough for you to earn Heaven. On your own you are not holy enough to enter Heaven or to save yourself. Scripture says, One cannot redeem himself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; he would never have enough (Psalm 49:8-9).

Only Christ and His righteousness can ever close the gap, can ever get you to Heaven. Even if we do have good works, they are not our gift to God—they are His gift to us. We cannot boast of them because they are His. Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

The Pharisee in this parable has a prideful premise: he is convinced of his own righteousness. Notice that he uses the word “I” four times in his brief prayer.

        • I thank you
        • I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous
        • I fast
        • I pay tithes

It is also interesting that the Lord indicates that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” Some think that this merely means that he did not say the prayer out loud. Others suspect that there is a double meaning, if you will. In effect, the Lord is saying that the Pharisee’s prayer is so self-centered, so devoid of any true appreciation of God, that it is actually spoken only to himself. He is congratulating himself more than he is praying to God, and his “thank you” is purely perfunctory; it is more for his own prideful self-adulation. He is speaking to himself, all right. He is so prideful that even God can’t even hear him!

We see here a prideful premise on the part of the Pharisee, who sees his righteousness as his own, as something that he has achieved. He is badly mistaken.

Problematic Perspective … and despised everyone else. He looks on others with contempt, perceiving them as beneath him. Notice that the Pharisee is glad to report that he is not like the rest of humanity.

Not only is his remark foolish, it is also impertinent. One will not get to Heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. No indeed, being better than a tax collector, prostitute, drug dealer, or dishonest businessman is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Now, somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” It is dangerous (and a waste of time) to compare oneself with others because it misses the point entirely.

The point is that we are to compare ourselves to Jesus and be conformed to Him by the work of His grace. Any honest comparison of ourselves to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for grace and mercy, because it is the only way we stand a chance.

It is so silly—laughable, really—to compare ourselves to others. What a pointless pursuit! What a fool’s errand! What a waste of time! God is very holy, and we need to leave behind the problematic perspective of looking down on others and trying to be just a little better than some other poor (fellow) sinner.

There’s a lot of talk today about being “basically a nice person,” but being nice isn’t how we get to Heaven. We get to Heaven by being like Jesus. The goal in life isn’t to be nice; the goal is to be made holy. We need to set aside all the tepid and merely humanistic notions of righteousness and come to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort. Looking to be average, or a little better than others, is a problematic perspective. It has to go; it must be replaced by the Jesus standard.

Let’s put it in terms of something we all can understand: money. Let’s say that you and I are on our way to Heaven; you have $50, while I have $500. Now I might laugh at you and feel superior to you. I might ridicule you and say, “I have ten times as much as you do!” But then we get to Heaven and find out the cost to enter is $70 trillion. Oops. Looks like we’re both going to need a lot of mercy and grace to get in the door. In the end, we are both in the same boat; we’re woefully short. All my boasting was a waste of time and quite silly, to boot. We have a task so enormous and unattainable that we simply have to let God grant it and accomplish it for us.

Prescribed Practice But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Given everything we have reflected on, we can only bow our head and cry from the heart, “Lord, have mercy!” Deep humility coupled with lively hope is the only answer.

Being humble isn’t something we can do on our own. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. In our flesh, we are just too proud and egotistical. God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind. Notice that the tax collector in today’s parable did three things; we should do them as well:

Realize your distancehe stood off at a distance. The tax collector realizes that he is a long way from the goal. He knows how holy God is and how distant he himself is. Let’s be clear: the image of a tax collector is shocking. Such men did not get their posts by being “nice guys.” They were often ruthless thugs who didn’t hesitate to use fear and extortion. But his recognition of his distance is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.

Recognize your disabilityhe would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says, No one can see on God and live (Ex 33:20). We are not ready to look on the face of God in all its glory. That is evidenced by the fact that we are still here on earth. Scripture also says, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). This tax collector recognizes his disability, his inability to look on the face of God, for his heart is not yet pure enough. In humility, he looks down. His recognition of his disability is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting him the humility by which he stands a chance.

Request your deliverancehe beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice that the tax collector’s humility is steeped in hope. He cannot save himself, but God can. He cannot have a saving righteousness of his own, but Jesus does. This tax collector summons those twins called grace and mercy. In this man’s humility, a grace given him by God, he stands a chance. For by this humility, he invokes Jesus Christ, who alone can make him righteous and save him. Scripture says, The humble, contrite heart the Lord will not spurn (Ps 51:17). Jesus says, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Beware of pride, our worst enemy. Beg for the gift of humility, for only with it do we even stand a chance.

I have it on the best of authority that as he left the temple, the tax collector sang this spiritual: “It’s Me, Oh Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer.” In the video below it is sung by a German choir, which explains their unusual pronunciation of the word “prayer.” I can’t complain, though; I don’t pronounce Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit) very well either!

The Sins of God’s People As Stated in the Prophet Malachi

Blog11-2In yesterday’s post, we considered the sins of the priests (and they were numerous enough). Today we examine the sins of the people that the Lord sets forth in the Book of Malachi. Here, too, please understand that not everyone is guilty of all of these things. However, they are common human sins and sinful attitudes. So consider this inspired list (for it is from the Lord) and pray for conversion and repentance, for the picture here is all too familiar.

I.  The Attitude of Ingratitude – The text says,

The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast thou loved us?”… I have laid waste the hill country [of the sons of Esau] and left its heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, till they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry for ever.” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord, beyond the border of Israel!” (Malachi 1:1-5)

God gives us astonishing gifts: life, air, water, food, and family—the list could go on and on. Mysteriously, even the burdens of life are gifts for us in the way they bring us wisdom, grant us humility, connect us more deeply to one another, and bring forth strengths that we never knew we had. Every day, trillions of things “go right.”

This is not an exaggeration when we consider the intricate functioning of every cell in our body, the delicate balance of the earth’s ecosystems, and even the balances and fortunes of our solar system and the cosmos. Trillions of things, large and small, go into every moment of our existence.

Each day a few things go wrong: a health setback, a missed opportunity, bad traffic, etc. But a few things compared to trillions? And yet we are so easily resentful at the slightest wrinkle in our plans, the smallest trial or difficulty.

We are like the ancient Israelites boldly rebuffing God, “How have you loved us?” God replies by simply declaring that he has rebuffed our enemies. Are you and I grateful that God has snatched us from Satan’s grasp? Through grace and mercy, we now stand a chance. Yes, we have a desert (a desert of our own making) to get through, and there are trials to be endured, but in Christ Jesus we have overcome and can make it.

II. Foolish Faithlessness – the text says,

10 Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob, for the man who does this, any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the Lord of hosts! (Malachi 2:10-12)

The remarkable insight of this text is that rejecting our covenant with God is not only being unfaithful to God, but also to one another. In the ancient context of this text, every individual who was faithless to the Covenant and its demands affected not only himself, but also everyone around him.

In 721 B.C., Israel had already been weakened and destroyed by the Assyrians. And now faithless Judah was threatened with ruin, stubborn and still unrepentant despite the warning of the destruction of the northern kingdom.

A nation cannot stand when its individuals fail to repent. Nations do not repent unless individuals do so.

In our own time, the United States is living on the fumes of former faith and sacrifices. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are demonstrably the fair flowers of the biblical teachings of justice and the dignity of the human person. The Judeo-Christian faith produced what we call “the West.” But Democracy has this weakness: it depends to a great degree on the virtue of the populace. Remove a solid moral grounding and freedom quickly devolves into licentiousness. Remove the anchor to the truth of Judeo-Christian moral precepts and the result is the tyranny of relativism.

And this is where we are today. Our country and culture were once deeply rooted in the biblical vision; belief in God was once evident on Sunday mornings, when most people went to Church. But we are now increasingly secular. Indeed, there is even a growing hostility to faith.

A country cannot undermine its principles and expect them to stand. The text from Malachi says that we have been faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers. Indeed we have—and our whole country and culture have suffered as a result.

The text also says we have married the daughters of a foreign god. Indeed, we have married many daughters of the gods of this world, of the prince of this world. These daughters go by names like greed, fornication, sexual confusion, secularism, relativism, materialism, and narcissism, just to name a few. We have collected many such foreign wives and given our hearts to them. We have been faithless and committed every kind of abomination with them.

And in all this we sin against not only God, but ourselves and one another.

III. Mangled Marriages – The text says

13 And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. 14 You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. 16 “For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Malachi, 2:13-16).

Yes, God hates divorce. Do we grasp this? Too many do not, even boldly saying that God told them He wants them to be happy, or claiming God’s “blessing” on their desire to divorce.

Necessary separations for safety’s sake are one thing, but in our culture people walk away from marriages at an astonishing rate. Even in the Church many shrug and even want to settle down with “the reality” of divorce instead of insisting, along with God, that divorce is something to be resisted, to be shocked by, and to do everything possible to avoid. Too many also do not take into consideration how their individual decision to walk away from marriage harms others, especially children.

Divorce, along with all the other “mangling” of marriage that we do and approve in our culture (e.g., cohabitation, single motherhood, and adoption by homosexual couples) harm children. Every child has the need and the natural right to be conceived in a home in which his father and mother have married, committed to each other, and stay married—working out their difficulties and preserving their union for the sake of the children. To intentionally subject children to anything less than this is an injustice and is harmful to them. And when children are harmed, the whole culture is harmed. Wounded children grow older and too easily become delinquent adolescents, underachievers, and then dysfunctional adults.

IV. Delight in Disorder – the text says,

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Every one who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi, 2:17)

Too often in our times we glamorize evil or excuse grave sin as “no big deal.” Our movies and many other forms of entertainment glamorize violence, greed, and fornication. There is “gangsta rap” all the way up to the “high-class” House of Cards. Bad and foolish behavior, scurrilous comedians, and the like round out the debasement.

We glamorize evil, laugh at it, and dance to it.

The text here says that the people wearied the Lord by claiming that even those who do evil in the sight of the Lord are good and that God delights in them. Too many people today think that God does not care that they sin and that “He loves me no matter what.” Of course this is a terrible presumption and a highly distorted view of love. Love never delights in what is wrong and wants for the beloved only what is good, true, and beautiful. And God has made us free.

Thus St. Paul rightly says, Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 6:7-8). The Greek word translated here as “mock” more literally means “to turn up one’s nose, to sneer.” St. Paul is telling us that God will not be disregarded in this manner. He tells us that our decisions build our character and our character ushers in our destiny. Either we will love God and His Kingdom’s values, or not. And that will determine where we prefer to spend eternity.

Turning up our nose at God and saying it doesn’t matter, when He has said that it does, will not change the facts; our decisions form who we are and will be for all eternity. Those who contemptuously ask, “Where is this God of Justice?” are going to be surprised. Sr. Faustina reported that Hell was quite full of people who had denied that there was a Hell.

V. Injurious Injustice – the text says,

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me,” says the Lord of hosts. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed …” (Malachi 3:5-6).

The list here is too large to permit commentary on each item, but fundamentally it describes injustice to the poor and vulnerable. Payment of unjust wages, oppression, and insensitivity to the poor, the migrant, and the immigrant, children, and the unborn—those who do such things do not fear the Lord, according to the text. They have forgotten that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and is close to those who are oppressed.

The connection of sorcery and adultery to sins of injustice may not be clear. However, the sorcerers used potions and spells. The Greek Septuagint uses the word φαρμακοὺς (pharmakous) in this text. This is where we get the word “pharmacy.” Sorcery was often connected with abortifacients and contraceptive potions and drugs. As such children, in the womb were threatened and killed by such things.

Adultery always harms marriage and family, and as such, harms children. Thus the notion of injustice to the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy is a rather complete picture. All these sins of injustice are sadly common in our day—and God says that He will judge us for them.

VI – Tightfisted in Tithes – The text says,

From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing thee?’ In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me; the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 3:7-12).

I have written more extensively on the topic of tithing, recommending it wholeheartedly. It is true that the Church today does not strictly require that one-tenth be devoted to the Church. However, Jesus did commend tithing (cf Luke 11:42) and Catholics ought not to be so quick to set it aside as a practice.

The fundamental point in this text is that the worship and praise of God were being neglected. And this is often the case today as well. Many give little to the Church in terms of time, talent, or treasure. Meanwhile, secular causes and pursuits are well-supported. As our houses, banks, and government buildings have gotten bigger, our churches have gotten smaller. In fact, many are closing. Newer churches often fail to inspire and are utilitarian in nature.

Our immigrant ancestors had far less material wealth than we do today, yet they built beautiful Churches, Catholic schools, and hospitals. Their priorities were different—they were better.

Many people expect more and more from the Church while giving less and less. It doesn’t work that way. God says, Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.

Again, this is less about money than it is about our hearts, our priorities, and our faith. If those are intact, the resources will flow.

VII. Weary in Well-doing – the text says,

13 “Your words have been stout against me,” says the Lord. “Yet you say, ‘How have we spoken against thee?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape’” (Malachi 3:13-15).

This is similar to what was said above insofar as glamorizing evil. But here the focus is more on the selfish notion that “I don’t get rewarded enough for doing good.”

But of course we do not obey God just because we will benefit; we obey God because God is God.

That said, there are rewards for following God. However, the rewards may not be in line with the preferences of our earthly passions. We often think of rewards in terms of money, advancement, good health, popularity, and so forth. But sometimes the best blessing is the cross and whatever it takes to kill our pride and prepare us for eternal glory.

We think that we know what is good or best for us, but usually we don’t. We only want things to spend on our passions (cf James 4:3). God does reward those who serve Him, but He rewards us with what will open us up for the best that is yet to come. Too often we are dismissive of spiritual blessings and prefer the toys, trinkets, and tender meats of the world and fleshly desires.

Well, that’s quite a little catalogue of sins! But be of good cheer, God does have a plan. We can conclude our tour through Malachi by looking at some of those remedies tomorrow.

Here is a performance of Carrissimi’s “Peccavimus Domine” (We have sinned, O Lord).

Sins of Priests as Described in the Book of the Prophet Malachi

Sinful, misleading, and even heretical clergy are nothing new, yet this remains a profound sadness. It is a rare week when someone does not contact me from somewhere in the country to say that his or her parish priest is preaching or teaching something that is a half-truth, erroneous, heretical, and/or scandalous. Add to this the silence of many other priests and bishops and we have a flock that is often disheartened and confused. Woe to clergy who mislead, pervert the truth, or spread error and confusion.

Last week in the Office of Readings we read from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, where there is set forth a kind of riv (a Hebrew word for a lawsuit, indictment, or controversy) by God. The Lord presents a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient priests of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case shows a body of evidence that is just as true today as it was then. God has plenty to say, and we have much to hear, much to repent.

As we consider the sins of the priests described below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed to imply that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so also must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind, let’s consider the sins of priests in three basic areas.

Shoddy Sacraments

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised thy name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. While the injunction regarding damaged and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful concerns priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, why not just celebrate the liturgy as it is set forth in the books? In some places in the liturgy there are legitimate options, and not every complaint is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

A priest cannot be expected to fix every problem in the liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence and fussiness are not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implements. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the faithful to follow the example of our recent ancestors by seeking to build and maintain worthy churches, erected for the glory of God rather than just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with just any old thing in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our magnificent churches, but He knows that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient Jewish time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father.”

The sins and omissions of priests today surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period during which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are discouraged and angry; most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented from Church teaching, who do not listen to God or take to heart His teachings and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed by poor priestly leadership and example. Recent data show that about eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass regularly. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teachings and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. Not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation or speak of their office as a burden. Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern notions that the gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction (Malachi 2:6-9).

Silent pulpits are all too commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to play it safe, fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent—and by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being corrected and disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against incomplete teaching, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Sadly, some of these rebukes concerning incomplete teaching must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; give them support even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the seven thousand who had still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of the priests that God sets forth. Let us not forget, however, that the world has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and grow too silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

The Practices of Prayer – A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

The readings today speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. In particular the first reading from Exodus pictures prayer powerfully:

In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17:-8-13)

We can notice here six practices related to prayer, six fundamental teachings on prayer:

I. The Problem for Prayer. In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one thing about problems is that they help to keep us praying. Israel is at war and their enemies are strong. It was time to pray.

In the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass, a widow is troubled about something and it keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us problems to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.

Problems aren’t the only reason we pray but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary that problems would cause us to pray. But if we’re honest, we’ll probably admit that problems have a way of summoning prayer from us.

II. The Priority of Prayer. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his prayer place. Prayer ought to precede any major work or decision.

Too often we rush into life without praying. Each day should begin with prayer. Important decisions are a time for prayer. Prayer needs to precede, it has a priority over and before action.

Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action wherein they ask God to clean up the messes they have made by bad decisions. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we don’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.

And prayer isn’t just about praying for this or that specific thing. Prayer involves an on-going relationship with God in which we gradually begin to receive a new mind and heart, where our priorities and vision are clarified and purified. This new mind and heart we get from prayer and study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.

III. The Power of Prayer. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the best of the battle. But when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish Israel began to lose.

The fact is, prayer changes things. We may never fully know here how our prayer helped to change world history but I am sure that one of the joys of heaven will be to see what a real difference our prayers, even the distracted and poor ones, made. We’ll tell stories in heaven of prayer’s power and appreciate what difference it made for us and what a difference we made for others. For now, much of this is hid from our eyes. But, one day, by and by, we will see with a glorious vision what prayer did.

I suppose too that one of the pangs of purgatory might be to see how our failure to pray also had negative effects and how only God’s mercy could over-rule our laziness and failure to pray.

Moses is struggling to pray here in this story. So do we. But remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads. Pray!

IV. The Partnership of Prayer. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.

Moses, because of his fatigue, knows he needs to get Aaron and Hur to assist him in praying. As a team they pray together and, once again, Israel is strengthened and begins to win through.

Prayer is not supposed to be a merely “lone-ranger” experience. It is true that personal prayer is important but so is communal and group prayer. The Lord says, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). Likewise he says, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven(Matt 18:19).

Hence, we are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Since prayer is so essential and we are individually weak, we ought not have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and make up for our weakness.

Do you have some spiritual friends who help you not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up….where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12)

Do not pray or journey alone. Find some good spiritual friends to accompany you on your journey and to pray along with you.

V. The Persistence of Prayer. so that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.

The text says that, with Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through to sunset. They prayed right until the end and so must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait. But pray on anyway. We may at times get frustrated by the delay, pray on anyway. We may get fatigued or even lose heart, but pray on anyway.

Like Moses, get some friends to help you, but pray on anyway. Pray, pray, pray.

Be like the woman in today’s Gospel who just kept coming to that old judge until he rendered justice for her. Pray until the sunset of your life. I have brought people into the Church long after their spouse or mother who prayed for them has died. Just keep praying till sunset.

VI. The Product of Prayer. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This is the product and the power of persistent prayer. This is what prayer does.

We have already discussed above that we may not fully see prayer’s power and product on this side of the veil. But one day we will on glory’s side. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy. But how about the enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies and God still answers prayers. Pray and wait for the product of prayer.

So there it is, six practices and teachings on prayer.

This song says, “I Can Go To God in Prayer”

This song says, Somebody prayed for me. Had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me. I’m so glad they prayed for me!

A Warning from St. Gregory the Great for the Priest to Guard His Heart

For spiritual reading, I am currently reading The Book of the Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great.   Pope Saint Gregory was a master at taking details from the Old Testament priesthood and applying them to the priests of the New Covenant. In one reflection, he remarks on the details of the breastplate of the high priest and what they signify.

In effect, Pope Gregory instructs the priest to guard his heart, keeping it safe from the poison of false doctrine and misplaced affections, wherein he fears man more than God and desires affection and approval more than speaking the truth.

And while his words apply especially to priests, surely they apply as well to any who would preach, teach, parent, or witness in the world today. I’d like to consider a few excerpts from his reflection on the breastplate that was worn by the high priest. As is often the case, I will present the original quote in bold black italics, and my own, inferior remarks in plain red text. The quotes come from the Pastoral Rule Part II article 2.

Thus, it was assigned by the divine Voice that on the breast of Aaron, the vestment of judgment should be closely bound by bands (Exodus 28:15, 28). This was so that the heart of the priest would not possess fluctuating thoughts, but be bound by reason alone. Nor should he consider indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts.

First note the use of the word “bands.” At the root of the meaning of the word “religion” is the same concept. The Latin root of the word religion speaks of being bound closely to or embraced by God (re = again + ligare = to bind). Thus the virtue of religion binds one’s heart, mind, and soul. One’s whole self is bound fast to God, held tightly by Him in an embrace of love and truth. Many people denigrate the word religion today as sounding too institutional. Many say they are “spiritual but not religious.”  But as can be seen from its root, religion is a beautiful word describing an embrace with God.

Therefore the bands of the high priest’s breastplate remind all of us of our need to be bound and held fast to God and by God. They remind us to not allow ourselves to waiver, wander, or be carried off from the love and truth of God. We are not to be enamored of the world or its lies; neither should we embrace or cling to them.

The bands of the breastplate of the high priest, drawn tightly and snugly, remind us to cling to God and be held closely by Him. And indeed, as Pope Gregory goes on to say, being thus held close to God and His truth, the priest will not easily fluctuate from the truth; he will not wander off in all sorts of different directions. Being held close by God, his own beating heart begins to synchronize with the heart of God. Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Gradually the priest’s heart will become much like the heart of God, loving the things of God and the people of God with proper and ordered affection, wanting only what God wants.

Further, being held fast by God will also preserve the priest from what Gregory calls indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts. Indiscreet matters are those matters into which we ought not delve or pry. All of us know that there are things we ought not seek to know, things that are none of our business. The priest should properly seek to know only those things he needs to know. He should also remember that there are many things he cannot fully know, many of the deep mysteries of God about which he must humbly admit he knows little.

As for unnecessary thoughts, this surely refers to the thousands of trifling things that often occupy many people throughout the day: discussions about sports, or Hollywood celebrities, or the minutia of popular culture. Some small diversions in life have their place, but most of these accumulate excessively in our mind. We think too much of frivolous things and not enough about eternal, glorious, edifying, and lasting things. Almost any silly thought can enter our mind and we are carried off in one of a thousand different directions. But to be held fast by God is to occupy our minds especially with His glorious truths, to begin to adopt His priorities, to think about the things that are most important, helpful, and edifying.

… It was strictly added that the names of the twelve patriarchs should also be depicted (Exodus 28:29).  For to carry always the inscribed fathers on the breast is to meditate on the life of the ancients without interruption … To consider unceasingly the footsteps of the Saints.

Yes, every priest, preacher, teacher, parent, and leader in the Church should be deeply rooted in the wisdom of the saints and in the ancient and lasting truth revealed by God in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. To be a true Christian is to be deeply rooted in these things, always going back to that which is ancient and proposing it ever anew.  The truths of God are non nova sed nove (not new things, but understood newly).

 [The breastplate] is fittingly called a “vestment of judgment” because the spiritual director should always discern between good and evil … Concerning this it is written: “But you shall put on the breastplate of judgment, the doctrine and truth, which will be on Aaron’s breast … and [the priest shall] not add an element of human reasoning as he dispenses his judgments on behalf of God … Otherwise, personal affections might get in the way of zealous correction …

And here Pope Gregory warns against the human tendency to compromise the truth or to engage in rationalization. We can either add to the Word of God or subtract from it, but in so doing we render harm to the purity it should always have in our heart, in our mind, and on our lips.

Too easily, many priests, preachers, and teachers get carried away with trendy notions or theological speculations that can begin to substitute for the true word of God. Instead of preaching the Word directly from Sacred Scripture and from Sacred Tradition, too often he ends up preaching speculation or theories that serve more to raise doubts about or deflect from the true meaning of the Word of God.

St. Paul said to Timothy, Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching (2 Tim 4:2). He did not say preach lots of theories and speculations. Speculative theology has its place, but the priest must be careful not to be carried off by so much speculation that the actual Word of God is neglected. All of his judgments about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, should be deeply rooted in the wisdom and the truth of God and not be tainted by dubious opinions, trends, fashions, popular opinions, or unbalanced notions.

The priest must also be aware of personal affections and preferences. Too often in human affairs, who said something becomes more important than what he said. Affection and admiration have their place, but everything must be judged by and squared with the truth of God, no matter who says it. No one should be so quick to esteem the opinions of so-called experts without first considering how and if what was said squares with the revealed truth of Scripture and Sacred Tradition. St. Paul says, Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).

If one fearfully considers the One who presides over all things then he will not direct his subjects without fear.

Here is a very deep human problem: fear. Too many priests, parents, teachers, and others in the Church fear human beings rather than God. God would have us simplify things in our life by fearing Him alone and then not having to fear thousands of others.

Yes, too many priests and other leaders cower before congregations and preach so vaguely and blandly that almost no one can remember what was said, and their obfuscations disguise the Word of God more than reveal it.

The first question every preacher and teacher should ask is “What would God think of what I have said today?” But too many of us who preach are more concerned with the opinions of men. The fear that a preacher should have is not whether his congregation is pleased, but rather whether God, who will judge him one day, is pleased. If he fears God, then he will direct his people with holy fear, not out of fear of man. He will have a proper and holy reverence for God, to whom we must one day be accountable for our office. May neither our silence nor our rash speech condemn us!

 

https://youtu.be/gqZtjXckaik

How to Give God Perfect Thanks – A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

One of the great human inadequacies is our inability to give proper and adequate thanks to God. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we don’t even realize the vast majority of what He does for us; it is hidden from our eyes.

A further problem is that in our fallen condition we seem to be wired to magnify our problems and minimize or discount the enormous blessings of each moment. God sustains every fiber of our being and every atom of creation. God’s blessings are countless and yet we get angry if our iPhone malfunctions or if a few of His myriad blessings are withdrawn.

An old gospel song says it well:

 I’ve got so much to thank God for; So many wonderful blessings and so many open doors. A brand new mercy along with each new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. For waking me up this morning, For starting me on my way, For letting me see the sunshine, of a brand new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. So many times You´ve met my needs, So many times You rescued me. That’s why I praise You.

For every mountain You brought me over, For every trial you’ve seen me through, For every blessing, For this I give You praise.

 Fundamental Question – The question at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel is best expressed in the Book of Psalms: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The same psalm goes on to answer the question in this way: The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12).

The Mass is signified – Indeed, how can I possibly thank the Lord for all the good He has done for me? Notice that the psalm points to the Eucharist in saying, The cup of salvation I will take up …. As you know, the word Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We cannot thank God our Father adequately, but Jesus can. In every Mass, we join our meager thanksgiving to His perfect one. At every Mass, Jesus takes up the cup of salvation through the priest and shows it to us. This is the perfect and superabundant thanks to the Father that only Jesus can offer. In every Mass, Jesus joins us to His perfect sacrifice of thanks. That is how we give thanks in a way commensurate with the manifold blessings we have received.

Hidden Mass – The Gospel for this day makes the point that the Mass is the perfect offering of thanks to the Father in a remarkable and almost hidden way. But for Catholics, it is right there for us to see if we have eyes to see it. The Gospel contains all the essential elements of Holy Mass. It is about giving thanks and reminds us once again that it is the Mass that is the perfect thanksgiving, the perfect “Eucharist.”

Let’s look and see how it is a Mass:

1.  Gathering – Ten lepers (symbolizing us) have gathered and Jesus comes near as He passes on His way. We do this in every Mass: we gather and the Lord draws near. In the person of the priest, who is the sacrament, the sign of His presence, Jesus walks the aisle of our church just as He walked those ancient roads.

2.  Kyrie – The lepers cry out for mercy, just as we do at every Mass. Lord, have mercy! Jesus, Master, have pity on us!

3.  Liturgy of the Word – Jesus quotes Scripture and then applies it to their lives, just as He does for us at every Mass. (In saying, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus is referencing Leviticus 13, which gives detailed instructions on how the priests of old were to diagnose leprosy or its having been cured.) Yes, this is what we do at every Mass: we listen to the Lord Jesus, through the priest or deacon, proclaiming God’s Word and then applying it to our lives.

4.  Liturgy of the Eucharist – The Gospel relates that one of them fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This is what we do during the Eucharistic prayer: we kneel and thank Jesus, and along with Him, give thanks to the Father. As we have noted, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek and means “thanksgiving.” Here is the perfect thanks rendered to the Father. Those who claim that they can stay home and give adequate thanks to God should be rebuked for being prideful. Only Jesus can give perfect thanks to the Father, and we can only give adequate thanks by following Jesus’ command to “Do this in memory of me.” We have to be at Mass.

5.  Ite, missa est – Finally, Jesus sends the thankful leper on his way, saying, Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. We, too, are sent forth by Jesus at the end of every Mass, when He speaks through the priest or deacon: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

So, there it is. Within this Gospel, which very clearly instructs us to give thanks to God, is the very structure of the Mass. If you want to give proper thanks to God, the right place to do it is at Mass. Only at Mass is perfect and proper thanks given to God.

It was all prefigured in the psalm long ago: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12). Yes, it is the very cup of salvation, the chalice containing Christ’s blood, that is held up at every Mass. It is the perfect sacrifice of thanks. It is the prescribed sacrifice of praise. It is the proper sacrifice of praise.

Five Fundamentals for a Firm Faith – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass richly describe some essential qualities of faith and living in this world as a Christian. There are five fundamentals that can be seen:

Wanting The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5-6).

There’s an old saying that what you want, you get. Many doubt this, thinking that they have wanted many things that they did not get. The reason for this, however, is usually because they didn’t want it enough. When we really want something (provided it is not an impossibility) we usually get it, because we have a passion for it and work at it.

Many people who say that they don’t have time to pray or to go to Mass still find time to golf and watch TV television. They find the time because they want to do these things. They don’t find time to pray or to go to Mass because they do not want to do these things enough.

When the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith, they are asking for a deeper desire to know Him. Too often we miss a step in our prayer. We might ask the Lord to help us to pray when we really should be asking Him to give us the desire to pray. When we want to pray, we will pray. When we want to be holy, we will naturally strive for holy practices. It is about what we truly desire. Ask the Lord to help you want Him and His kingdom. Ask the Lord for a new heart that has proper wants and desires. Ask the Lord for a new mind that has the proper priorities and prefers to think about what is good, true, and beautiful. What you want, you get.

Waiting – The first reading speaks of our need to wait for the Lord’s action: How long, O LORD? I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. … Then the LORD answered me and said, Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4).

Waiting is one of the great mysteries of the Christian life. It is not always clear why God makes us wait. Perhaps He is trying to strengthen our faith. Perhaps He is helping us to clarify or confirm our desires. Scripture consistently tells us that we must learn to wait for the Lord and that there are blessings for those of us who do. Here are some examples:

        • Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil … those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land (Ps 37:8).
        • Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame (Is 49:23).
        • The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).
        • But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Is 40:31).

Waiting is a fundamental of firm faith. Gospel music is replete with waiting themes. One song says, “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait, trust, and never doubt him, no matter how long it takes. He may not come when you want him but he’s always right on time.” Another song says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light.” Other songs counsel that we must hold on and hold out:

        • “I promised the Lord that I would hold out, he said he’d meet me in Galilee.”
        • “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”
        • “Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!”
        • “Lord help me to hold out until my change comes!”

The reading from Habakkuk above warns that the rash man has no integrity. That is another way of saying that waiting is integral to the Christian life; it is a fundamental of faith. To have integrity means to have all the necessary parts that make up the whole. To lack patience, then, is to lack integrity, to lack a fundamental of the Christian faith.

Withstanding – The second reading counsels us, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:6-8).

This passage tells us that life has difficulties and challenges. Becoming a Christian does not necessarily make things easier. In fact, things often get harder, because we must endure the hatred and ridicule of the world. A fundamental of the Christian Faith is that being able to withstand such trials with courage.

Notice that this courage, power, and love come from God, not from us. Hence, it is grace that is being described here. This is not a moral slogan. Withstanding means that God is “standing with” us, and we with Him. Such withstanding is only possible by the relationship with God that comes by faith. In this way, we discover the power, the capacity, to withstand, to live the Christian faith courageously in a hostile world.

Working – The Gospel teaches, Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here immediately and take your place at table”? Would he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished”? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Luke 17:6-10).

This teaching of the Lord’s can irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh. Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God in return for the good things we do. The flesh expects—even demands—rewards, but God can never be indebted to us, never. Our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.

All our works of charity and faith, for which our flesh wants credit, are God’s work and His gift. This is made clear in this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

If I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward, I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. When I have done something good all I can really do is to say, “Thank you” to God. His grace alone permitted me to do it. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us, but that is His business. He is not indebted to us in any way. When we have done everything we ought, our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what He enables us to do.

That said, it is clear that work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s Gospel and the text from Ephesians above both make clear that work is something God has for us. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17). Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Yes, work is a fundamental of faith.

Winning – We conclude with a reference back to the first reading: For the vision still has its time, it presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late (Hab 2:3).

See what the end shall be! It is true that we must want, wait, withstand, and work, but we do not do so for no reason. We have a cross to carry, but if we carry it with the Lord, we carry it to glory. There is an old gospel song with these lyrics:

Harder yet may be the fight, Right may often yield to might, Wickedness awhile may reign, Satan’s cause may seem to gain, There is a God that rules above, With hand of power and heart of love, If I am right, He’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace some day. I do not know how long ’twill be, nor what the future holds for me. But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.

This is just what Habakkuk describes: we will win with Jesus. He describes a victory that is

        • Future – the vision still has its time; it presses on to fulfillment
        • Fantastic – it will not disappoint
        • Firm – it will surely come
        • Fixed – it will not be late

For all those who walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, there is victory ahead. Even here in this life we already enjoy the fruits of crosses past. Our withstanding in the past has given us strength for today. Our waiting in the past has had its fulfillment and provides the hope that our current waiting will also be fruitful. Our past work, by God’s grace, has already granted benefits to us and to others.

These are but a small foretaste of a greater glory to come, the glory that waits for us in Heaven. Yes, if we want, wait, withstand, and work, we will win! I promise it to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.